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Friday, 28 June 2019

Real Face, Sad Face, Fake Face?

My latest article for  Witness is on faces and emotion, how it's communicated through expresssion, gesture, space, history, oh and electric wires. 

The thing I love is it gives me a chance to talk about some of my very favourite work by some of my very favourite photographers as well as touch upon ideas of faces, masks and heads. The images below are by Krass Clement. If you don't know Krass Clement, it's a beautiful learning experience...

It also gives me a chance to revisit some older work, as in a few years older. I think because photography moves so fast, we don't really give work a time to settle. There's a flurry of activity for a couple of years and then it passes.

This is very true of photobooks which sometimes seem in a kind of visual concept race where one idea is worked to death for a year before another one comes along and then another and then another. And the substance and heart and soul of work gets lost in the process. 

The substance is what matters. That the case with Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids, which I revisited for this piece. 

It's a series of images from Cairo’s ill-fated Arab Spring (and that fate was always written into the work. There are lines of protesters, ranks of police, people fleeing, rocks being hurled, all under the orange glow of Cairo’s sodium lamps. And then people are arrested, they’re injured, they die. And because people die, their mothers, their fathers, their family, their friends grieve.

El-Tantawy shows this grief. But rather than showing the intensely performed grief that you so often see, she shows a more private grief, one that runs deeper that comes through simple gestures that are tightly cropped and intensely personal. 

It's direct and it's simple and the emotion runs into and beyond what is happening on the streets of Cairo. 

Pretty much all the writing on photography is about its authenticity. Even people who write about how inauthentic and fake it is have at the heart of their thoughts some inner ideal world where authenticity reigns supreme.

It's the real-notreal, true-nottrue cycle. And the answer is a bit of both, and it depends, and maybe. There are no absolutes. The nice thing about photographic criticism is people write in absolutes - 'the photographic is a neurological pathway to a collective consciousness..'  or  'the image of disaster and war is a catharsis for our collective guilt...' 

People come out with this stuff, with no proof whatsoever, and then it's taken as fact and regurgitated a million times. It's a notch above Photography is good v Photography is bad, but not too much of one.

And which is true? is photography good? Is it bad? It depends on several things? Including is the photograph real or is it not real? And how do you know that? Well that depends as well.

Christopher Anderson's pictures from Stump are real (all photographs are real, wherever you find them), and what they show is real as well. Not authentic, but real.  The faces that Christopher Anderson photographed in his book Stump, are as false as you can imagine. The smiles are more like grimaces, the upturned lips or gazing eyes expressions of gravity and power. These are faces where emotions are all on the surface.

It’s the visual version of Oliver Sack’s story, The President’s Speech. This is a story where a group of aphasia patients (who can't understand the individual words too well in isolation, but understand the emotional content of the speaker) are watching Ronald Reagan give a speech. And they are pissing themselves laughing because... he's such a bad actor. They get beneath the language. 

That's what these pictures are about. 

And then the final person I look at is Soham Gupta and his pictures from Kolkata. These are harsh pictures, I'm not sure about them, they're shock images which doesn't always bode well. But I remember seeing them for the first time and there was something about them that resonated beyond the shock. 

I'm not a complete believer in the idea that to make a picture of a people or place, you have to be of that people or from that place . But, like everything, maybe sometimes it's the case, maybe sometimes it isn't. Maybe very often it's a good idea. (And I'm looking forward to attending a workshop next week that will touch on that issue and migration - part of which will go into the next piece)

It's very much a good idea with Gupta, who is at the same of the place and the people, but perhaps also not. His work comes from both the people he photographs, but also stretches into ideas of asymmetrical urban development, neglect of mental health services, and the history of Kolkata as a place of publically owned displacement, distress and death. 

“It’s like punching the wall. I want to shake up the people [who] are living in their comfort zone. I want to shake their world and show them that this is also a world that exists and it’s not that far away from their world. It’s in the same city but different.

People don’t acknowledge their existence, they don’t look at them, they don’t care. They are not the vote banks for politicians so you don’t need to do anything for them. It’s very sad.”
“There are two sides to this work. On one side it’s about these people’s suffering, about their rotting away on the streets of Kolkata, on the other side it’s how I see my life, the prime of my life. It’s for my own understanding of how I see the world.

Most of these people develop mental illness over time and because getting treatment is very difficult, they leave the home. Or if they are women and being abused they might get kicked out and then they end up living on the street. And that’s where the problems begin.

I’m not an outsider in some ways, but in other ways I am an outsider. And they are outsiders. Mental illness is a big stigma in India and I experienced that so there’s a lot of anger in me so that finds a way of being expressed in my photography. I empathise with them and I see myself in them.”

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